Sharing The Joys Of An Unsalted Paradise
Most of us who cruise long range enjoy that instant bond we feel when connecting with voyagers along the way. Different backgrounds, different professions, and different personalities- —they all melt together in the common love of big-water adventure. Within minutes of meeting a fellow voyager, you feel like you’re talking to an old friend. If you’re lucky, you may have local friends in your home waters who also share your passion. If you’re really lucky, those friends will occasionally have a window of time to travel with you.
The highlight for us last summer was the Great Lakes Area Nordic Tug Owners Association’s annual rendezvous. With several of our friends, we made plans for a long summer adventure into the wild areas of the northern Great Lakes—this was going to be special! The rendezvous was scheduled for late June at St. Ignace, Michigan, in northwestern Lake Huron. The plan was to depart our local waters of Green Bay, Wisconsin, in mid-June and head north. An important ingredient that everyone agreed to bring along was our favorite cruising guide, known as “Fish Creek Rules” (named after our homeport). Though it doesn’'t exist on paper, this guide is critical for group cruising. It goes something like this:
• Be willing to compromise and remain flexible, or go cruising alone.
• If someone wants to break away from the group for a period of time and do their own thing, no problem.
• If there is room for only some of the group in an anchorage or at a dock, adjust your plans accordingly.
• Pick your own pace in the open water and everywhere else for that matter, even if you’re many miles or days ahead or behind the rest of the group.
• If some want to go out for dinner alone at any time, no problem.
The main thing is, don’t take it personally, and don’t get upset if things unfold a little differently than you might have imagined they would. Stuff happens on every voyage, and those who enjoy it the most learn to simply go with the flow. We all agreed to let “Fish Creek Rules” be our primary guide. Not that hard really, because all of us share a love of relaxed, long-range voyaging. We could hardly wait!
Our friends included Bill and Jo Schaars aboard Dolly. The Schaars sailed for years on a Tartan 37 before deciding they wanted more comfort and protection from the elements. They’ve been very happy as the sailors say, “on the dark side,” after switching to their Nordic 32 in 2004. Dave and Jean Baumann aboard August Windy, on the other hand, are both quite new at this long-range stuff. Their first year was aboard a Ranger Tug in 2009. After experiencing the power of the Great Lakes, they quickly traded up to a Nordic 32 and are enjoying the extra strength and stability it provides. In 2008, Ben and Nikki Kraft had jumped at the chance to trade out of their aft-cabin motoryacht. WaterKraft is a beautiful new Nordic 37. My wife Mary Jo and I would join them all aboard Jenny Jo, our Nordic 37 (see “In Search Of A Pilothouse,” Channels Newsletter Aug. ’10). We also had a 42-foot Ocean Alexander Classico in the mix, with Steve and Chris Kuchma aboard O B Quiet. They were longtime sailors who made the switch back in the mid 1990s.
GOING WITH THE FLOW
Mother Nature decided that she would like to come along as well, offering 45 knots of steady wind, with gusts of 60-plus forecast for our planned departure. Dolly, WaterKraft, and O B Quiet decided to leave for the beautiful little harbor at Fayette, Michigan, in northern Green Bay the day before the winds arrived, but we could not. The wind arrived on schedule but was not as strong as forecast. Although small craft warnings were in effect, the large seas would be out of the south, and would be behind us. With extensive experience in rugged seaworthy boats, we will occasionally run in strong winds if we believe it’s safe to do so. This was one of those days. So off we went with August Windy close behind riding big following seas to Fayette. Of course we kept good separation as we were dealing with occasional surfing. It’s not always possible to stay on the backside of the steep, short wave patterns on the Great Lakes. This was a day where the large keel and huge centerline rudder on our tugs were paying big dividends. As compared to planing boats having to come down off plane in these conditions, our hulls were tracking as though they were on rails. It was a pretty day, and once we got into a rhythm with the waves, we really enjoyed the five-hour run up Green Bay.
We love the little historic harbor of Fayette and visit it often, but this time was extra special. The old state park dock was filled with our Nordic Tugs, a scene the park visitors got a big kick out of. The wind soon died and spectacular weather set in, making the beginnings of our trip all the more special. We were planning to stay a while but with perfect weather forecast for the next couple of days, everyone agreed we should head for open water the next morning.
Dawn brought water as calm as ice. Our little flotilla departed in total sunshine, sliding along Michigan’s Garden Peninsula and sneaking through the shallow cut just south of Summer Island before swinging onto a northeasterly course to Beaver Island. A couple of hours later, Capt. Kuchma came up on the VHF suggesting that we should remember this day in the middle of January. “Roger that.” Mirror images of seagulls danced on the water all day and about the only odd thing I noticed was August Windy occasionally drifting off course in the distance, but not enough to really stick in my mind. I just figured his new autopilot was not adjusted quite right. After making fast at Beaver Island, this grand day ended with a Maui-style, open-air dinner at The Lodge, overlooking the lake with a magnificent sunset behind High Island—delightful to say the least.
The amazing conditions continued the next day as the tugs set sail for the Straits of Mackinac. It had been years since Mary Jo and I had experienced calm in and around Gray’s Reef. This section of Lake Michigan can be really wild at times, with winds funneling down the straits running headlong into seas rolling up the lake over 250 miles of open water. We were really starting to enjoy the conditions when we noticed August Windy slipping onto a potentially dangerous course line out over the reef. To a first timer, this area can be confusing, even in good weather, so I called Dave just to be sure he was OK—he was not! The previous day’s wandering came sharply back into focus when Dave reported that he was losing his steering and having a hard time holding any course line. He was very calm considering the circumstances. Testing some ideas for maneuvering, he said he'd get back to me in a few minutes, which he did. Working with the throttle, very limited steering, and an occasional burst of the bow thruster, Dave was actually managing to stay relatively true to his course line. He also noticed when he crossed a large boat wake off the beam that it was helping his attempts at realignment. At about that time Ben raised us and said he was falling back with WaterKraft to see if he could assist. So we stayed well behind August Windy for the next hour and watched while Dave expertly bounced between the large walls of WaterKraft’s wake. Ben had increased his speed to create a maximum wake, and now having lost all of his steering, Dave was doing an unbelievable job of guiding the boat with nothing but throttle and thruster, while staying close behind WaterKraft.
After limping into the marina at Mackinaw City we all took turns thanking Mother Nature for the calm conditions that allowed all of this to take place without incident. Then the praise turned to Dave, what an amazing effort! Limited experience or not, he was cool as a cucumber, very impressive. The skilled crew at Shepler’s Marine made repairs the next day and then we were off to St. Ignace for the rendezvous.
A RAINY RENDEZVOUS
The weather turned nasty for the arrival of all the Nordic Tugs. Twenty boats showed up and spirits ran high in spite of the cold rain. St. Ignace was also hosting one of the largest car shows in the Midwest during our stay. The owners of more than 1,000 of the most amazing muscle cars, street rods, etc., were also hoping for a break in the weather. The clouds parted for the final day of the show and we all enjoyed touring the streets while memories of the 1960s poured through our heads. Corvettes, Cobras, HemiCudas, GTOs, 442s, Shelby Mustangs, and on and on. It was very cool! Back on the waterfront, we enjoyed several seminars in addition to individual service work by Ed Hislop, one of the finest Cummins mechanics in the region.
We’ve developed a strong camaraderie with this group of Nordic owners in just three short years since starting the rendezvous on the Great Lakes. These tugs deliver a quietly rebellious take on the state of power boating today. Quality without glitz, there’s just something special about these boats. We continue to be thrilled with the rugged simplicity of our efficient high-quality vessel, and to say we’ve enjoyed our association with the other owners would be a major understatement. The time passed too quickly, as these events always do, but knowing what lay ahead kept smiles on all of our faces.
Next stop Canada, and the beautiful North Channel. We were going to lose some of our group for a while as both O B Quiet and WaterKraft had to wait for their respective first mates to arrive from Chicago and Milwaukee in a few days—they had been singlehanding up until this point. And August Windy had planned to wait for a group of fellow U.S. Power Squadrons members that were a few days behind with their summer cruise. So, for the next couple of weeks, it would be Dolly and Jenny Jo.
We’ve enjoyed lots of cruising with the Schaars and the two tugs are compatible as well. After clearing the harbor we set a course to Thessalon. In the northwest corner of Ontario’s North Channel, Thessalon is a nice, rustic little harbor where we experience everything we love about cruising in this region. Laid-back, friendly people and a quiet, basic harbor that just feels more relaxed than anything to the south. Checking in through Canadian customs is via phone and they could not have been more welcoming or respectful. In turn, we always make a special effort to show our Canadian friends the respect they deserve. The lack of arrogance and posturing in and around these harbors is refreshing—the emphasis always seems to be focused on true seamanship and camaraderie.
We were overdue for some wind, and sure enough the next day brought plenty of it. The layover day turned out to be great for washing boats and just taking it easy. Another tug out of Ohio had pulled in, so we enjoyed getting to know the crew of Sapphire as well. Bright sunshine and diminishing winds followed, so the next day we motored east over the shallows of Blind River bank with about a 2-foot following sea en route to our first anchorage at Sanford Island. That evening brought sand beaches, steak on the barbecue, and favorite tunes in our cozy pilothouse. Oh my, it was good to be back on the hook. The sun came up on a cool summer morning and ushered in a beautiful first day of July, with no Internet and no bars on the cell. Oatmeal with some fresh-picked blueberries and then it was into the nearest beach with Emma (our Portuguese Water Dog) in the kayak. This day was a constant reminder of why gunkholing beats any marina hands down!
EXPLORING BY KAYAK
One of the neat things about The North Channel is how close all of these wonderful anchorages are to one another. You can relax and enjoy the morning, even wait until after lunch if you want, before you move on, still making the next island before nightfall. Our next stop was Turnbull Island. After setting our Rocna anchor in hard sand, we watched Bill maneuvering his kayak around Dolly, attempting to scrub his waterline. He soon provided us with some fine entertainment as we watched him lean a bit too far and roll his kayak unexpectedly! Lots of laughter ensued, and it took him a few days to live that one down. Our kayaks were new, so I spent several hours that day quietly exploring, getting the feel for the boat, and just soaking up the great beauty in all directions. I quickly realized that the wildlife accepts you in a kayak more than any other form of transportation. Of course kayaks are very quiet, but they just seem to be at one with all of nature. Gliding along one shoreline, I was shadowed for several minutes by a red fox. One could almost feel the silence. The day ended with a nice cocktail hour on Dolly’s cabin top.
A short run over to John Harbor would provide us with more great beauty and exploration, while we settled in for a July 4th that was far away from all of the crowds and fireworks back home. John Harbor is a wonderful 2-mile-long natural harbor nestled between John and Dewdney Islands that offers almost unlimited anchoring options. Sapphire was tucked into a nice spot and we anchored with Dolly just around the next point to the east. The 4th brought two loons just off our pilothouse while we were having breakfast, so many reminders of nature’s beauty. Then it was time for Mary Jo to really get to know her new kayak. She bonded with it almost instantly and she was off on what would be the first of many long explorations that followed in the days and weeks to come. She’s come to be known by our fellow cruisers as “the rock lady” in that she is constantly on the prowl for unique rocks that tend to end up in her rock gardens at home. The kayaks were proving to be one of the best investments we had ever made. The overhead celestial display that night was spiritual, throwing natural light as far as the eye could see, with nothing created by man in sight.
Several days had passed since our last port, so we all decided it might be fun to make the run down to Gore Bay Marina on Manitoulin Island. This facility is a favorite of ours with new docks and oversized slips, not to mention the ever-present friendly Canadians in and around the little town of Gore Bay. This marina is also home to Canadian Charters, the primary North Channel charter fleet and an excellent restaurant called Rocky Racoon.
After two days, a wonderful meal at the restaurant, and some provisioning in town, we were itching to return to anchoring. Dolly led us back north to Fox Island, where we had never been. Because of the inland marshes, Fox can have a bug problem at times, but it’s definitely a risk/reward situation as this area of beautiful red granite outcroppings is a must-see. For the next couple of days we kayaked in and around a truly stunning archipelago, stopping occasionally to pick some delicious ripe blueberries. As if on cue, a pair of bald eagles soared above us for some 15 minutes as we paddled through one tight passage between islands. Just another day in paradise.
Paddling over to Dolly’s anchorage had become the routine for daily planning. On this day we decided to move on to another new spot for us, Sturgeon Cove at Great La Cloche Island. This large cove has a tricky entrance requiring zigzagging between rocky shoals, so we ran close to Dolly going in, as Bill had the local knowledge necessary for a safe entrance. Once inside, there were many nice spots to pick from, even though several other vessels were already swinging at anchor in this popular cove. Late that first night someone tried to enter the cove without local knowledge—bad idea! All of the commotion woke us up and we spent a couple of hours watching as this boater’s friends came to his rescue and managed to pull him off the rocks, amazingly, with only minor damage. Aside from that wild event, all was peaceful for the next few days as we enjoyed kayaking, swimming, and a couple of delightful “happy hours” on the point with most of the folks in the cove. There were lots of nice folks with common interests, and not a cloud in the sky. As if we didn’t already love the kayaks, our experience in this cove cemented that love. One morning I was sliding along no more than 30 feet from shore with Emma on board when I felt her starting to shake. It seems she spotted a family of minks drinking at the water’s edge. Not noticing us, they carried on with their playful ways. I thought Emma was going to have a heart attack as she sat trembling with frustration, unable to chase. She remained silent, however, and they never did notice us. What a show! I can’t really explain the joy I felt watching my animal and the wild ones living very much in the moment.
Reprovisioning time had arrived once again, so it was off to nearby Little Current. Little Current is the center of shoreside activities in the North Channel, home to the wonderful morning VHF radio program known as “Cruisers Net” and is a great place to layover for a day or two. We enjoyed a nice meal at the Anchor Inn with the Schaars and sat in the next morning at the “Cruisers Net” broadcast. Roy Eaton runs this terrific radio broadcast that includes a brief update of the day’s news and the weather forecast, followed by a call-in from cruising boats throughout the region, giving their boat names and locations. It’s a great way to keep tabs on folks and it’s especially fun to sit in on the broadcast in his office, where he also keeps a really nice logbook filled with photos of cruisers that have stopped in over the years. What a nice guy, and a great service.
Jenny Jo and Dolly settled in the next night way back in the famous fjord-like area of Baie Fine, and it was magnificent. But then it was time for us to head for a rendezvous with WaterKraft and O B Quiet at the quaint village of Killarney. “Fish Creek Rules” prevailed as Dolly would stay behind to connect with some other friends from back home. We had a great time with the Schaars. Staying on the George Island docks across the channel from the Sportsman’s Inn at Killarney, we also met up with August Windy again, and some other folks from our home waters. Having this many familiar faces so far from home was a rare treat. The calendar was starting to run away from us and there was so much more that we wanted to do. After another spectacular sunrise and a captains meeting, Jenny Jo, WaterKraft, and O B Quiet would head east together for some must-see spots in Georgian Bay.
The three of us cruised through Collins Inlet, where we simply ran out of superlatives to describe the beauty, and on to an evening anchored in Beaverstone Bay. Then we went through rough weather back to a popular spot known as Covered Portage Cove. All of this at the wonderfully relaxing pace of 8 knots, as we spent night after 10-point night, anchored under crystal clear, star-filled skies! We had always avoided the very popular Benjamin Island group, but decided this was the year to give it a try. Tying our sterns to a tree on shore, we all managed to achieve secure anchorage in the small cove at Croker Island. It didn’t take long to realize why this area is so popular. It truly is one of the most amazing archipelagos I’ve ever seen throughout North America. For the next couple of days, we had a ball with the Krafts and the Kuchmas. Dinghies, kayaks, swimming, hiking—as Jack Nicholson says, “This is as good as it gets.” Then a familiar sailboat pulled in unexpectedly. It was our old friends Chuck and Judy Holtz aboard their 40-foot Tartan, Bacchanallia. Our last rendezvous with Bacchanallia was a dream cruise on Lake Superior (see “A Great Lake Experience,” PMM Jan./Feb. ’03) we shared with them years before.
More days on the hook followed, including a great spot known as Cleary Cove, where Steve parked his dinghy one evening for some fishing in front of a huge beaver house. I think he watched the beaver more than his fishing pole—too many good choices. Chris tried out Mary Jo’s kayak and we ended up doing some long-range kayak adventures throughout this beautiful area. There may be a kayak in O B Quiet’s future. The good times around Cleary Cove ended with a wonderful evening get together aboard Jenny Jo.
It would soon be time to work our way out of the North Channel area, but not before a rough-water passage back down to Gore Bay. The three powerboats slid through the tight opening at the east end of John’s Harbor and into some rough open water. O B Quiet headed off on a more westerly course, while WaterKraft and Jenny Jo tacked off more to the east. Ben and I were enjoying somewhat of a competition to see which one of us could create the best course line with the fewest tacks, while still keeping everyone comfortable in the big beam seas. Our Nordic 37s continue to impress us, more with every rough passage.
A brief visit to Gore Bay produced another fine meal at Rocky Racoon. Mary Jo also enjoyed a productive fossil hunt along the shore leading down to the lighthouse. The next day was choppy, but beautiful, and the three boats were off to DeTour, Michigan. As we cleared the North Channel, Steve radioed that we were heading back to civilization. I reminded him that, no, we were actually leaving civilization. After clearing U.S. customs and spending an evening in DeTour Village Marina, it was off across the top of Lake Huron to a terrific little area called the Duncan Bay Boat Club in Cheboygan, Michigan. En route we stopped for fuel and found that both WaterKraft and Jenny Jo had been averaging over 3 nautical miles per gallon for the last month, including generator time! We were weathered in for a couple of days and had lots of fun with the Kuchmas and the Krafts around town and the marina. Celebrating one of our last days with friends, we staged a very tasty barbecue in the pavilion area at Duncan Bay, with enough laughter to last for months.
Leaving Cheboygan and Lake Huron, we would head for different favorite ports along the northeast shores of Lake Michigan. On our last day, leaving the little fishing village of Leland, Michigan, and heading out into open water, the most amazing thing happened. After our 6 a.m. departure, we glided between North and South Manitou Islands only to spot a familiar vessel on the horizon, on what appeared to be a collision course off our starboard quarter. As they drew closer on another unusually calm day, I could see it was our friends aboard O B Quiet. Raising Steve on the VHF we decided to hold course just out of curiosity. At the last minute we adjusted to avoid what would have been a collision on the open waters, and neither of us had seen another vessel for hours. What are the odds? We both laughed. Sometimes you just can’t keep good friends apart. Cruising together can be a big dose of good times. Just remember to follow “Fish Creek Rules.”